STEPHEN GLOVER: Stand aside, Rishi, for the good of the nation. We need a functioning Prime Minister and we need her now
Although he never quite said it, former Labour prime minister James Callaghan is credited with returning from exotic climes in January 1979 during the ‘winter of discontent’ to ask, ‘Crisis? What Crisis?’ Four months later, he and his party were voted out of office.
People may differ about the seriousness of the problems that now face this country, but it is generally agreed that they are near to the end of the scale marked ‘calamity’. Almost every day brings fresh dire forecasts about the spiralling cost of living.
And yet we haven’t got a government as the word is normally understood. Boris Johnson has been booted out, though he loiters for the time being in No 10. Nobody believes that the recently installed Chancellor, Nadhim Zahawi, will be in office once a new Prime Minister has been chosen.
For their part, Liz and Rishi apparently disagree about the best way to help people confronted by soaring gas and electricity bills
But that process won’t be complete until September 5 —almost another four weeks in this hot, seemingly endless summer. In the midst of the worst energy crisis of modern times, with several other severe problems mounting up, we have a Zombie government that is unable to act even if it wanted to.
Gordon Brown, the former Labour prime minister, has emerged from his Scottish eyrie to propose that Boris, plus would-be leaders Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak, should get round a table and thrash out a solution to our tribulations. That is a very silly idea.
Mr Johnson can’t be expected to propose policies for which he won’t be responsible or accountable. For their part, Liz and Rishi apparently disagree about the best way to help people confronted by soaring gas and electricity bills. She wants to cut taxes immediately. He favours more targeted support, though exactly what form this would take is still not clear.
No, a pow-wow at No 10 is not a sensible way forward. It’s not going to happen, as Gordon Brown, if he reflected for a moment, would realise. He loves drama, of course, and thinks back to the days after the 2008 financial crisis when, as he likes to see it, he summoned the political leaders of major countries and saved the world from catastrophe.
Mr Johnson can’t be expected to propose policies for which he won’t be responsible or accountable
But there is another way out of this mess — which is now to end a protracted Tory leadership contest that seems to have been dragging on for ever. We have had innumerable television debates, first with the wider group of candidates, and then with Rishi and Liz slugging it out.
For the past couple of weeks, Tory Party members have been treated to five hustings in various parts of the kingdom. They can attend seven more over the coming weeks should they have the stomach for it. The two rivals have also given newspaper interviews.
What is the point of waiting until the first week of September, given that both candidates have already been thoroughly examined, and been offered every conceivable opportunity to set out their political stalls? They have said as much as any politician could be expected to say. I’m sure I can’t be the only person who has heard more than enough.
In short, both Ms Truss and Mr Sunak have been exhaustively tested. It was admittedly regrettable that during the 2016 Tory leadership contest Andrea Leadsom withdrew before she and Theresa May had been grilled by the Tory rank-and-file. Mrs May became PM without having to give a full account of herself, though luckily, for all her faults, she was still preferable to Mrs Leadsom.
The present situation is entirely different because the two runners have been properly scrutinised, as they are well aware. Having emptied the bottom drawer, they have got to the point of trying to outdo each other just for the sake of it. Liz offers tax cuts, then so does Rishi, even though he has suggested that in present circumstances they are ‘immoral’. What will they be promising in three weeks’ time if this goes on?
I’m afraid that many onlookers will conclude that the Conservative Party, which has masterminded this interminable and sometimes tiresome process, is indulging in a fit of navel-gazing while everyone else in our leaderless country is fretting about the future.
In a perfect world, the Tory high command would realise that this drawn-out process can’t be allowed to go on much longer, and would put us out of our misery by bringing it to a close. But the chances of such people agreeing to change the rules once the race has started lie somewhere between slim and non-existent.
Yet there is another way, which even self-obsessed Tory big-wigs could not frustrate. One of the two candidates could put up the white flag and withdraw. As Mr Sunak is languishing in whichever of the many polls you care to look at, it would have to be him.
You won’t find a Tory MP in possession of his or her faculties and identifiable as trustworthy (a tall order, perhaps) who doubts that Liz Truss is going to win, and to do so handsomely
In fact, it’s not really true to say that he is ‘languishing’. A succession of polls have shown him falling further and further behind. You won’t find a Tory MP in possession of his or her faculties and identifiable as trustworthy (a tall order, perhaps) who doubts that Liz Truss is going to win, and to do so handsomely.
Perhaps Mr Sunak and his backers still hope that in some way his opponent is going to stumble and fall flat on her face. But it hasn’t happened yet. If anything, she grows stronger and more confident by the day.
Rishi needn’t worry about appearing wimpish if he pulled out. On the contrary, I believe most people would salute him for his good sense and statesmanship. Rather than having subjected the country to several more weeks of pointless and repetitive debate, he would be hailed for behaving in a selfless way, and patriotically putting Britain first.
There is another consideration. Rishi Sunak is, after all, the chief architect of our present uncertainty since it was he who, more than anyone, precipitated Boris Johnson’s ejection from power. If the former Chancellor were to fall on his sword, he would to some extent soften the impression he has given of being a self-serving assassin.
Mr Sunak is languishing in whichever of the many polls you care to look at
That could be a big bonus for him in his future political career, which he insisted the other day he has no intention of abandoning. I can’t say whether he would increase his chances of getting a plum job in Liz Truss’s Cabinet if he were now to step down. But I am certain he would enhance his battered reputation.
In normal circumstances, of course, there would be no great harm in seeing the thing through to the end. August tends to be a quiet month in which big events (excepting the outbreak of World War I) don’t normally erupt.
But these aren’t normal circumstances. There are vital, pressing decisions to be made about the cost-of-living crisis, and there is no one to take them. There are other crises too. On Monday, Health Secretary Steve Barclay was reported as saying that the NHS faces a winter emergency, and it will be ‘too late’ to avert disaster if action is delayed until a new Prime Minister is in post.
Stand aside, Rishi, for your own good and, far more important, for the good of the country. You can’t win this and you know it. We need a functioning Prime Minister — and we need her now.
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